Distributor Entrepreneur of the Year - Scott Alterman & Jordy Gamson

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IceboxFrom the very beginning when the company was literally hatched on a beverage napkin, The Icebox (asi/229395) has prided itself on creativity, service, business generation and relationship building. But it's that last trait which is being put to the test by a large client who is making increasingly difficult demands. "Because we value the relationship, I keep biting my lip," says co-owner/CEO Jordy Gamson, "but I think I've bitten a hole through my lip actually. It's because we take the high road."

The fact that Gamson and co-owner Scott Alterman have debated ending this very large account ("We would survive, and arguably even do better without them," Gamson reasons) speaks to the enviable place that The Icebox has reached. The Atlanta-based distributor has plotted a strategic course over its 12-year history, aggressively courting new business but treading cautiously with acquisitions and major junctions.

As an example, the pair tells a story about trying to acquire a competitor who serviced a multibillion-dollar corporation. Before Alterman and Gamson went through with it, they decided to check into the retail giant's credit – and got a little spooked. They asked for some payment assurances for the $1 million-plus in inventory they were about to carry, but were told it was a deal breaker. Six months later, the corporation completely shut down its operations and stores.

"It was very hard to say 'No, thank you,' to an account that's throwing several million dollars at you in business," says Alterman. "But we were smart, and we didn't even realize how smart we were at the time." It informs one of the company's philosophies: It's the bad deals that will kill you.

The Icebox currently touts over 60 employees, but its origins trace back to the first two. Alterman, 42, and Gamson, 45, struck up a friendship in the mid-1990s while working across the hall in different businesses. When the time came to break out with a new venture, they drew upon Alterman's apparel background (he started in a uniform and corporate apparel company named Gagwear with his brother Greg; the two also started wearables company Alternative Apparel) and Gamson's business acumen. The goal was to bring something sorely lacking to the industry.

"We wanted to hire some extremely creative people on the front end because we felt like the industry needed some forward thinking," says Alterman. "That was the mentality: Let's mix it up a little bit."

The distributor currently takes in $15 million-$16 million in revenue, with a planned goal of reaching the $20 million mark. Only a month ago did The Icebox launch a new website with e-commerce functionality, and it recently acquired an additional building across the street from its headquarters to house its screen-printing operation. Beyond that, the company continues to rely on the "basics" that have made it a sustained success and a multiple-time member of the Counselor Best Places to Work list.

"Our formula is pretty simple," says Gamson. "Get the right people, get them working in harmony, and then just do the right things." – CJM